By Travis Hines
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Only two years removed from the only 0-16 campaign in NFL history, the Lions showed real signs of life in 2010, finishing the season with four straight wins while tying the Vikings for third place in the NFC North to mark the first time they haven't finished alone at the bottom of the division since 2007. With young, talented pieces on both sides of the ball, Detroit certainly appears to be a team on the rise.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford may be the most important of those pieces, and his health has been the biggest question mark surrounding his development. The signal caller out of Georgia has yet to play in more than 10 games in a single season during his two years as pro, creating doubts about his long-term viability at the helm of the Lions.
Detroit's offense appears to be in good hands with Scott Linehan calling the shots and with dynamic Calvin Johnson and Jahvid Best in the fold, though Best has injury concerns of his own. The Lions jumped from 26th overall in total offense to 17th in the league while moving from 27th to 15th in points thanks to an 8-points-per-game bump from 2009 to 2010. And they did so with Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton under center for most of the season.
One of the potential weapons of that offense, however, was lost for the season before the first preseason game when the newly-drafted Mikel Leshoure went down with an Achilles' injury. Leshoure was slated to see plenty of carries alongside Best, but it now appears backup duties will be handled by a committee of a yet-to-be-determined combination of Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell.
Things look equally as bright on the defensive side of the ball, especially with the potentially fearsome duo of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly in the middle of the defensive line. Louis Delmas has established himself as a Pro Bowl caliber player at safety, and the Lions are high on middle linebacker DeAndre Levy.
The Lions clearly believe in the pieces they have and developing them into playoff-caliber talent as they declined to make any significant moves in the frenzy that was the post-lockout free agency period. But they also didn't lose much, either, with under-performing wideout Bryant Johnson the only notable loss.
Even with the potential and upside on the Lions' roster, Detroit looks to be in a tough spot with both NFC Championship teams -Chicago and Super Bowl champion Green Bay - calling the NFC North home. Earning a playoffs berth may be out of reach this season, but after over a decade of futility and dozens of losses, the Lions finally appear to be headed in the right direction - up.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (13) Nick Fairley, DT, Auburn
Expected to start from Day 1 opposite Ndamukong Suh.
2. (44) Titus Young, WR, Boise St.
Slated to contribute immediately.
2. (57) Mikel Leshoure, RB, Illinois
Lost for the season with an Achilles' injury
5. (157) Douglas Hogue, LB, Syracuse
Not expected to make an immediate impact.
7. (209) Johnny Culbreath, OT, South Carolina State
Provides depth along the offensive line.
Mike Bell, RB (Browns)
Will try to fill void left by Mikel Leshoure's Achilles' injury
Jerome Harrison, RB (Browns)
Will be in the mix to provide help for starter Jahvid Best.
Bryant Johnson, WR (FA)
Wasn't the complement to Calvin Johnson the Lions were looking for.
Jordon Dizon, LB (FA)
Holdover from Matt Millen era that didn't fit the new mold.
Joe Jon Finley
CAN Matthew Stafford STAY HEALTHY?
The first overall pick in the 2009 draft has flashed the talent that earned him a $78 million contract before he ever took a professional snap, but in two seasons he's yet to play a year's worth of games, suiting up for 13 career contests.
Stafford predictably struggled in his rookie season (13 TDs, 20 INTs, 53.3 completion percentage) on a team coming off an 0-16 season, but found his year shortened by a shoulder separation. The Georgia product never got the chance to show if he could make a second-year leap as he suffered yet another shoulder separation in the team's opener and then again in November after he returned.
The Lions continue to maintain that Stafford is not injury prone and that he is 100 percent healthy heading into the season. He did require a visit to Dr. James Andrews this offseason for surgery on his shoulder, but all indications are that he's fully recovered. Keeping him that way is the challenge for a team that lacks an elite (though improved) offensive line.
HOW HIGH CAN MEGATRON FLY?
For the second time in his career, Calvin Johnson hauled in 12 touchdown passes and ranked second in the league in the category. The rest of his numbers (77 catches, 1,120 yards and 14.5 YPC) are good, but not transcendent. While transcendence may be an unfair expectation, Johnson's 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame and 4.3 speed is wholly unfair to defensive backs.
Much of what is holding Johnson back from his potential is whom he's been catching passes from. Retread Jon Kitna was under center to start Johnson's career and since it's been a promising youngster that can't stay healthy (Matthew Stafford) and career backups Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton. A healthy Stafford could go a long way in helping Johnson realize greatness.
For two years running the Lions have selected one of the more disruptive inside forces college football has seen in recent years in Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Suh garnered Heisman votes while at Nebraska while Fairley was the Lombardi Award winner as he helped Auburn claim a national championship.
Suh stands 6-foot-4 and 307 pounds and Fairley 6-3, 291,with each owning uncanny athleticism for their size. Having two players on the inside that demand double teams is a nearly unheard of luxury and should (theoretically) make the lives of the other nine Lions' defenders much easier.
Fairley will miss the preseason with a foot injury, but will still likely see favorable matchups against opposing lines thanks to Suh's presence, making his transition a little smoother once healthy. Obviously, we've never seen Fairley play a game at the NFL level, but you can't help but wonder just how destructive this pair has a chance to be standing side-by-side.
Rising: With Mikel Leshoure lost for the season, Jahvid Best will likely see the vast majority of carries out of the Lions' backfield. The Lions will still employ help, but Best is by far the most talented option.
Declining: Maurice Morris is in position to take the No. 2 running back job, but the Lions brought in Jerome Harrison and Mike Bell after Leshoure's injury and there's still youngsters Aaron Brown and Ian Johnson to worry about. Morris is the more expensive and older option behind Best and, as such, a candidate to be cut.
Sleeper: As long as Calvin Johnson is around, Nate Burleson will see plenty of single coverage. Everyone who has ever played opposite of Johnson has found himself on hundreds of sleeper lists, but with a healthy Matthew Stafford, Burleson has the ability to produce.
Supersleeper: With Morris dropping, Aaron Brown appears to be a candidate on the rise. He's made a big push in training camp after posting 4.9 yards-per-carry in minimal work a year ago.
Louis Delmas, S
Has been the Lions' best defender and most prolific tackler the past two years.
Ndamukong Suh, DT
Almost unbelievable athleticism given his size which helped produce 10 sacks a year ago.
Nick Fairly, DT
Benefits from Suh's presence, but has enough individual ability to warrant doubleteams.
RotoWire Rank: 6